Voters asked to extend county's 1/2-cent sales tax by 20 years


It's costly for people with average incomes to live in San Mateo County. The median price for a single-family home is $1.25 million, a price out of reach for a three-person household earning the median income of $108,000, according to the annual Indicators Report from the nonprofit Sustainable San Mateo County.

The report shows that home building has not been a priority. Of the county's 20 incorporated communities, 15 (or 75 percent) built fewer than 50 percent of homes planned for in a seven-year regional projection that ended in 2013. The projection for 2014 to 2022 shows a need for 16,418 new homes, with 9,851 of them (60 percent) affordable for people with incomes of less than $86,500.

On the Nov. 8 ballot, Measure K would extend by 20 years the 10-year half-cent sales tax (Measure A) passed by voters in 2013. The ballot includes a list of priorities for how to spend the estimated $85 million a year in revenues from the tax, starting with housing for "seniors, people with disabilities, veterans and families." Other priorities include enhancing public transit, combating human trafficking, addressing sea level rise, and maintaining safe schools and neighborhoods.

While most tax measures require the approval of a two-thirds majority of voters to pass, Measure K needs only a simple majority, or just over 50 percent, because the revenues are not earmarked for a specific purpose.

Measure K's focus on housing, sea level rise, etc., would add to the proposed spending for Measure A, including improving student reading skills, preventing child abuse, keeping county parks open and maintaining adequate staff in the county jail.

By July 2017, Measure A will have added $322 million to the county's general fund, according to the county manager's office. The county spent $104.6 million of these revenues so far and has allocated $178.3 million for the current budget.

Measure A spending includes $15 million for public transport for the disabled; $14 million for technology infrastructure; $12.5 million in North Fair Oaks to put utilities underground, add street lights and make other changes to improve the neighborhood; $2.1 million for new fire engines; $1.7 million for homeless shelter operations in East Palo Alto; $900,000 on summer school reading programs; and $307,000 on housing for farm laborers.

A compelling issue?

In San Mateo County, between 2010 and 2014, businesses created 55,000 new jobs and developers built just 2,100 new housing units, Supervisor Don Horsley said. "We have a housing crisis now that has been developing over the past several years," he said.

"The business community (is) telling us that it is becoming difficult to recruit and retain employees because of the lack of housing," Mr. Horsley said. "In the county government, we are having trouble recruiting deputy sheriffs, doctors and nurses. School districts are having trouble recruiting and retaining teachers."

"You can walk up and down just about any main street in this county and you will see 'help wanted' adds for our service industry," he said. "That is why we are asking voters to join with us and help provide resources to address the housing crisis. ... Delaying dealing with it only makes the problem worse."

Opponents of Measure K aren't buying it. "If housing is as compelling as (Mr. Horsley) says it is, what the county should have done was to put a bond measure specifically for housing on the ballot. If you're going to do this, do it right," said Matt Grocott, a San Carlos City Councilman and chair of the "Committee to Stop K, Why Now?"

"In trying to pull people's heart strings and get people to pass this measure, they're saying 'affordable housing, affordable housing, affordable housing,'" Mr. Grocott said. "They're essentially making this about affordable housing."

Supervisors in Santa Clara and Alameda counties are proposing bond measures. Voters this November could authorize the counties to fund housing by borrowing up to $950 million and $580 million, respectively. Such measures raise taxes based on a property's assessed value and require a two-thirds majority to pass.

San Mateo County supervisors considered a bond measure, Mr. Horsley said. The county asked the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California to test voter support for a $500 million measure, he said. The result: 63 percent approval, short of the necessary two-thirds majority.

The county itself polled voters on measures of $350 million and $300 million and got the same result, Mr. Horsley said. But support for extending Measure A came back with a 71 percent score, he said.

With a 27-year income from Measure K, the county might arrange lease revenue bonds to build affordable housing, as was done to build the new jail and a juvenile hall, Mr. Horsley said.

But County Counsel John Beiers noted that while projects for "core county facilities" are common in the bond market, affordable housing may not be in the same category. "Whether a similar financing structure is feasible for affordable housing is a complex issue," he said in an email, "and the County would need to work with bond counsel and its financial consultants if the measure passes and the County ultimately decides to explore it."

It's also possible, Mr. Beiers said, that Measure K revenues may go to support affordable housing in ways not involving construction. But, he added, "such decisions will not be made unless the voters have first approved the measure."

The board could pursue public/private partnerships with developers, Mr. Horsley said, adding that the county is considering a $200,000 loan to Peninsula Open Space Trust and Blue Horse Farm to buy two mobile homes for farm labor housing.

'Sucking up the oxygen'

Opponents argue that with seven years yet to run on Measure A, it doesn't make sense to extend the tax now.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district includes all of San Mateo County, acknowledges the importance of the problem. "I think affordable housing needs to be addressed," he said, but added that Measure K "is not a specific tax for a specific item. How much is going to go to affordable housing?"

"My concern is more the temporary nature of the (tax) turning permanent," Sen. Hill said. "We also know that sales taxes are regressive," he said. "We might be helping some, but we're hurting others."

Asked to comment, Mr. Horsley noted that the people helped by these measures are spending most of their money on rent and food, neither of which is taxed. Is it fair, he asked, to use a municipal bond measure to tax people with property to support people without property? "With sales taxes, everybody contributes to the solution," he said.

Opponents have another view. With the half-cent sales tax, "the county is sucking up all the oxygen in the room," Councilman Grocott said. Cities and towns also have reason to boost their general funds through increased sales taxes, he said.

Assemblyman Rich Gordon said Measure K "makes a tremendous amount of sense," adding that if he were still a San Mateo County supervisor, he would support it. "I don't know how else it gets done," he said.

It's been left up to the high-cost-of-living communities to figure out how to provide housing for people with lower paying service jobs, he said. Lacking local options, these people often have long commutes. "It's really unfortunate," Mr. Gordon said. "It's just not good for the communities."


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5 people like this
Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 6, 2016 at 10:58 pm

Housing is fundamentally a problem of permitting, zoning and land use, not one of taxation.

If we allow adequate supply to be built, at a sensible density for the demand, prices will moderate and virtually everybody will be better off.

That doesn't require a sales tax, it requires sensible land use and a realization that we don't live in a county of rural villages anymore.

9 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of another community
on Oct 7, 2016 at 12:30 am

All these tax measures are mostly about the constant push to make taxes more and more regressive, tax cuts for those with the most money, shifting costs down on the average working people who are barely making it - and then blaming the government when for the last 30 years business has been writing the laws and pulling government's strings to NOT do anything.

7 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 7, 2016 at 6:24 am

We consistently hear we need more housing for more people. But what should be coupled with that thought is more traffic, more kids in schools, buildup of infrastructure, etc. etc.

I'd like to hear a balanced conversation that addresses all aspects -- one cannot say we need more housing and then complain about traffic or commute problems, and so on.

6 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 7, 2016 at 7:33 am

@MP Resident is correct. How long does it take for any new housing to be approved by government agencies? Years. That's not building time, that's just planning time.

Then, those same governments limit density. They limit height. They don't allow housing in about half the county land area because it's designated as open space.

If you force a developer to build housing that is not dense, not tall, only on existing developed land, and for them to wade through years of bureaucracy and community review, you end up with only luxury housing. If you relax all these rules, developers would build more affordable housing.

The county should solve the cause of the problem, not treat the symptoms. Treating the symptoms is expensive and largely ineffectual. Solving the cause is actually cheaper and helps more people.

8 people like this
Posted by Roy
a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on Oct 7, 2016 at 1:18 pm

No! This tax will serve nothing! The voters have already made their position clear and these constant 'back to the ballot-box' attempts to further increase -for twenty years!- sales taxes are not the solution!

9 people like this
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Oct 7, 2016 at 4:16 pm

The Supervisors were dishonest when they placed Measure A on the ballot claiming the County had a deficit when in fact had a surplus for many years.

The Supervisors are being dishonest again, They placed this on this ballot because they knew it could NOT lose at 50% plus 1 to pass. They thought there would be no opposition.


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